Sunday, April 5, 2009

Forgotten Terrors (that shoulda stayed that way)

Forgotten Terrors:
The Phantom // 62 Minutes
Tangled Destinies // 56 Minutes
The Intruder // 66 Minutes
Dead Men Walk // 64 Minutes
Released by Image Entertainment

Reviewed by Steve Evans
On this pleasant Sunday morning in early spring, I offer for your consideration a quartet of public-domain horror flicks from the cheapest studios in the business. Guilty pleasures or gawdawful productions? I leave that to your gentle wisdom, dear reader.

This double-sided disc contains four itchy and scratchy films, two to a side, from 1930s “poverty row” studios. Production houses like Monogram and PRC (Producers Releasing Corporation) could take an idea, turn it into a shooting script, film the project, and get the reels in theaters in a matter of weeks, all for a few thousand dollars. This is not a compliment. Image and sound are nothing to get all tingly about, either.

A bit of plot…

Side 1
The Phantom (1931)
The titular phantom is a master criminal who escapes Death Row and teams up with a creature called “The Thing” (no relation to a certain Marvel Comics character). Together they go on a rampaging murder spree, with the Phantom vowing to kill the daughter of the district attorney out to catch him. The daughter and a crusading newspaper reporter track the Phantom to an insane asylum for a climactic showdown.

Tangled Destinies (1932)
A plane bound for Los Angeles makes an emergency landing in the desert. Passengers and crew find refuge in a convenient and apparently deserted (but fully furnished) farmhouse. When the lights go out, the film turns into an “old, dark house” mystery, featuring murder and a fortune in stolen diamonds hidden somewhere on the premises.

Side 2
The Intruder (1933)
When a guest is murdered aboard the S.S. Intruder, the ship capsizes before the onboard detective can crack the case. The survivors guide their lifeboats to an uncharted island where they are attacked by a killer gorilla and a wild man roaming the jungle. The shipwrecked gals in this little party find a cozy place to sleep, but wake up to discover they’re snoozing in a cave full of skeletons. Meanwhile, the murderer is still on the loose. The Intruder stars the improbably named Monte Blue, who made more than 277 films, starting as a stuntman in D.W. Griffith’s silent classic, Birth of a Nation.

Dead Men Walk (1943)
This film is a variation on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with the novelty of vampirism thrown in for good measure. George Zucco (who appeared in the 1939 version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame) stars in a dual role as the Clayton brothers. Lloyd is a respected New England doctor; evil twin Elwyn rises from the dead as a bloodsucking Nosferatu. Elwyn and his hunchbacked servant Zolarr (Yes! Bug-eyed Dwight Frye from Frankenstein!) go on a killing spree. Only the kindly Dr. Clayton can stop these fiends. Golly.

Historical Context
Public domain titles are films on which the copyright has long expired, meaning anyone with recording and duplication equipment, and access to the prints, can make copies and sell ’em at whatever price the market will bear.

Each feature on this disc runs about an hour, so there’s no big time commitment if you seek a quick fix of low-budget chills and thrills. But be forewarned: this is low-rent stuff. The writing on occasion isn’t half-bad (check out The Intruder, which is the best of the four flicks on this DVD), but for every tight line of dialogue, there’s a sloppy scene setup, a guy in a flea-bitten gorilla suit, or obvious model ships crashing around miniature waves. With the few exceptions noted above, the actors in these films are people you’ve never heard of. Forgotten Terrors is indeed an apt title for the disc.

What’s on the Disc, Steve?
Not much, I’m tellin’ ya. Video and audio are atrocious; as bad as you can imagine. About the best that can be said is the image is visible and the dialogue is (usually) intelligible. The video transfers appear as though someone used a digital camera to record the films while screening each picture in a semi-darkened theater, while possibly filming the pictures through a glass of mud. There are chapter stops for each film, but these can be accessed only while the picture is running, e.g., skipping from one chapter to the next in succession. There is no separate menu to jump directly to a specific chapter, which is annoying. There are no extras.

For collectors of creaky old horror films (which do hold an undeniable appeal among the cognoscenti) this disc might be worth a looky. But the package is criminally overpriced at a suggested retail of $20. I could go $10 — tops — if I really had to have these low-rent films, but $5-$6 would be perfectly reasonable for this particular disc, given the poor quality of the recordings and the lack of extra content or basic conveniences like a chapter menu.

“Unclean!” he declared, holding his nose.

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

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